After listening to Sting's so-so new album, Symphonicities, I wasn't convinced about the symphonic treatment of his songs, both as frontman for British New Wave act The Police and later as a solo pop artist who experimented with jazz, Arabic, Latin, and country music.
But then I went to see him at the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre on Friday night with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, conducted by the incredibly physical Steven Mercurio, plus a five-piece band including celebrated Argentinian-British guitarist Dominic Miller, and the appeal in a live setting became much more apparent.
The visuals definitely helped.
Looking yoga-enthusiast slim in a pair of tight black jeans, a black jacket with velvet cuffs, and closely cropped darker coloured hair, the 58-year-old Sting came out swinging with a strong first set before the intermission and a slower verging on sleepy second set until it thankfully picked up at the end again.
Performing on a slick-looking stage dominated by three large rotating panels on to which different coloured lights, videos and imagery were projected, he opened with the winning trio of 'If I Ever Lose My Faith In You', 'Englishman In New York' and 'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic'.
"The brass section have their own choreographed dance moves," said Sting of the horn players who were hamming it up during 'Englishman In New York' including one kissing another on the cheek at the end of the song.
It was when Sting tried to perform the first real punk song, 'Roxanne', with the orchestral backing, that the formula didn't quiet gel.
That would prove true later in the evening with the country song, 'I Hung My Head', and another punk tune, 'Next To You'.
Still, more often than not, it did work and wonderfully on such highlights as the Latin-tinged 'Straight To My Heart', 'Shape Of My Heart', and Fragile; the ballads 'When We Dance', 'You Will Be My Ain True Love' (an Oscar nominee from the Cold Mountain soundtrack) with nice vocal work from backup singer Jo Lawry; the mid-tempo 'Russians', 'Whenever I Say Your Name' (with Lawry filling in nicely again for Mary J. Blige), 'Fields of Gold', and the evening's three later standouts 'King Of Pain', 'Every Breath You Take', and the Arabic-soaked 'Desert Rose'.
Whether he was shaking his tiny hips, belting out a long note that turned his face red, or relaxing with one arm on his mic stand, Sting exuded confidence throughout the night and often told funny stories about writing songs.
"There's two kinds of love songs. The first kind, I love you, you love me. The second kind, I love you, but you love someone else. It's painful but it's interesting," he joked.
And on writing a country song, 'I Hung My Head', after being obsessed with TV westerns like Gunsmoke and Bonanza as a kid, he said self-deprecatingly: "I had authenticity issues. I'm from Newcastle."
Still, Johnny Cash later covered the song.
Sting also got pretty personal about writing 'Why Should I Cry For You?' about his milkman father who died 25 years ago.
"He was a tough old bird," said Sting. "My ancestors were seafarers and shipbuilders. One day he took me down to the shipyard and said, 'When you leave school, go to sea.' He wanted me to have an exciting life. Of course, I disappointed him."
© The Toronto Sun by Jane Stevenson